An Autistic Philosophy of Education

So….. I still haven’t found enough time to finish my first new blog post, as I have been tasked with report writing at my job. I didn’t even make the deadline I imposed on myself for this blog. I swear I’m working on stuff. So instead I’m posting yet another paper that I wrote for grad school. This is an excerpt from a longer paper that I wrote on best practices for teachers and I had to explain where I was coming from with my suggestions so I’m posting that. I figured that this would be good to post because it touches on things that I plan to address in the blog, such as new approaches to mental health, Floortime approaches for autistic students, and others. The previous paper I posted was from when I first started grad school and you could say that this is the culmination of everything I’ve learned and will take away from the program.

Check back in two Mondays from now for a new post!

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I have formulated the basis of my educational philosophy while working at The Rebecca School, which is a school that is devoted to the needs of autistic children who experience sensory issues and neurological difficulties to the degree that granting them access to the Common Core curriculum is a difficult, if not impossible, task; the school is known for working with the most challenging population of students in New York City. The modus operandi of the school is that the relationship between the student and the teacher is paramount and everything else follows. This kind of approach, referred to as Floortime at the school, has its home in the theories of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, whose posthumously published quote forms the basis of my educational philosophy:

Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.” (Vygotsky 1978)

In other words, children learn by example. Children’s behaviors and mental patterns are the product of those of their parents, teachers, caregivers, peers, and other folks with whom children spend significant amounts of time. Although this idea originated in research conducted in the 1920s and 1930s by Vygotsky, a slew of contemporary studies conducted by modern Vygotskyists have explored these theories and have found truth to them (Ahmadi Safa & Rozati 2017; da Cunha Júnior 2017; Brolles et al. 2017; Guseva & Solomonvich 2017). The implication of this research is that a good teacher not only understands the science behind good instruction (has a good grasp on the latest research in education, psychology, and other related disciplines, is able to develop successful lesson plans, etc.) but also understands how to teach students prosocial behavior through action. Since my personal discovery of the Floortime framework and Vygotsky’s theories, my sense of what was possible in the development of all people, regardless of developmental challenges, had greatly expanded.

My interest in education represents the intersection between my interests in psychology and in social justice. I am a believer in understanding the science of human nature – psychology – as a means to attain human liberation and education represents a chance to implement these core values on a communal level. As far as the study of psychology is concerned, I am ideologically aligned with the recently published Power Threat Meaning Framework, a 400-page scholarly article written by the clinical psychology division of the British Psychological Society, proposes a new framework which aims to understand psychological processes as chiefly reflective of an agent’s environment, especially power imbalances. The contention of this work is that power imbalances in our personal lives and society on the whole contribute to what we consider symptoms of mental illnesses and psychiatric disabilities that are common in the classroom. Symptoms associated with mild mental health issues such as avoidance, emotional regression, and concentration problems, and even symptoms associated with more serious psychiatric problems such as hallucinations, self-injury, and ritualistic behavior, could be indicative of experiences with power imbalances that the patient finds threatening to his or her own well-being (Johnstone, L. & Boyle, M. 2018). These power imbalances could be the result of abusive relationships with caregivers or generational trauma passed down from parents, which, themselves, could also be rooted in systemic violences such as racism, sexism, ableism, elitism, and homophobia among others (Johnstone, L. & Boyle, M. 2018).

Essential to the positive development of the student, regardless of degree of needs, is the development of agency and a resulting sense or self – the feeling that the things that one does have an impact on their surroundings and the world around them. Psychologist Karl Groos, in his book The Play of Man, calls this the ‘joy of being a cause,’ in which children derive pleasure from being able to manipulate the world in some way (Groos 1901). In order to properly engage with the world, the child needs to have a sense that what they do has a tangible impact on their environment and the people around them. Otherwise, why would they bother doing anything at all? A baby cries when it is hungry in hopes of communicating to its caregiver that it wants food; when the caregiver does not give food, the baby either cries more intensely or will eventually withdraw, reducing the baby’s sense of agency and sense of self as they get older when left unchecked (Greenspan S. & Shanker S. 2004). Students with behavioral issues may have not had that sense of agency established when they were younger and act out in an attempt to exert agency over their own lives and their surroundings when they may otherwise feel that they have none.

This development of personal agency is a driving force of critical pedagogy as described by Paulo Freire. In his approach to education, the teacher and the student are ‘comrades’ in learning experiences; the teacher acts as a guide in a student’s learning experiences rather than simply depositing knowledge into a student’s mind, which represents a more traditional approach to education, one that is increasingly criticized for being outdated and inappropriate for a majority of students. Freire advocated the development of not only a child’s agency but also a political consciousness. Developing a moral compass and a critical lens with which to view the world early on equips students the tools they need to transform the world they live in so that it is better for themselves, their peers, and future generations.

I find that considering students as the totality of the experiences provided by their environments can be extremely helpful when thinking about their motives and designing interventions for them. The Floortime model – as well as related models and theories – and the Power Threat Meaning framework provide excellent and non-oppressive theoretical tools for working with students while the ideas of Paulo Freire set a standard for educators to work toward. Education, as well as the decision to pursue it professionally, is a political act; whatever tactics we take now as educators will have an impact on the world in 15 to 20 years, as we will witness through how the children in our classrooms behave as adults. We are at a political tipping point in the United States and the rest of the world, where growing income inequality and climate change have become too dangerous to ignore. There are examples of children standing up to injustice in the Parkland shooting survivors and the Juliana v. US case. It is my goal to educate a generation of students that are equipped to tackle these problems.

References

Ahmadi Safa, M., & Rozati, F. (2017). The impact of scaffolding and nonscaffolding strategies on the EFL learners’ listening comprehension development. Journal Of Educational Research, 110(5), 447-456. doi:10.1080/00220671.2015.1118004

Brolles, L., Derivois, D., Joseph, N. E., Karray, A., Guillier Pasut, N., Cénat, J. M., & Chouvier, B. (2017). Art workshop with Haitian street children in a post- earthquake context: Resilience, relationship and socialisation. International Journal Of Art Therapy: Inscape, 22(1), 2-7. doi:10.1080/17454832.2016.1245768

da Cunha Júnior, F. R. (2017). Monitoring activities: a possibility for classroom development. Educacao E Pesquisa, 43(3), 681-693. doi:10.1590/S1517- 9702201707154754

Groos, Karl. The Play of Man, translated by Elizabeth L. Baldwin. New York: Appleton (1901).

Guseva, L. l., & Solomonovich, M. (2017). Implementing the Zone of Proximal Development: From the Pedagogical Experiment to the Developmental Education System of Leonid Zankov. International Electronic Journal Of Elementary Education, 9(4), 775-785.

Johnstone, L. & Boyle, M. with Cromby, J., Dillon, J., Harper, D., Kinderman, P., Longden, E., Pilgrim, D. & Read, J. (2018). The Power Threat Meaning Framework: Towards the identification of patterns in emotional distress, unusual experiences and troubled or troubling behaviour, as an alternative to functional psychiatric diagnosis. Leicester: British Psychological Society.

 

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